It is a continuously evolving learning environment created by the learners themselves. The learning model adopted by hackers has many advantages. In the hacker world, the teachers or assemblers of information sources are often those who have just learned something.
… this hacker model resembles Plato’s Academy, where students were not regarded as targets for knowledge transmission but were referred to as companions in learning (synetheis). In the Academy’s view, the central task of teaching was to strengthen the learners’ ability to pose problems, develop lines of thought, and present criticism. As a result, the teacher was metaphorically referred to as a midwife, a matchmaker, and a master of ceremonies at banquets. It was not the teacher’s task to inculcate the students with pre-established knowledge but to help them give birth to things from their own starting points.
It is ironic that
the current academy tends to model its learning structure on the monastic sender-receiver model. The irony is usually only amplified when the academy starts to build a ‘virtual university’: the result is a computerised monastery school.
We finished our JISC-funded Bebop project today. One of the main outcomes is a BuddyPress plugin that allows a user to import content they’ve uploaded on other sites, such as Flickr, Vime, YouTube and any site with an RSS feed, into their BuddyPress activity stream. What’s especially nice, is that the user can select which content appears in their activity stream, so it effectively allows them to curate collections of shared resources as part of their profile. There’s a good reason for this, and you can read all about it over on the project blog.
What?! No blog posts since April 20th, when all I had to talk about was my email habits?! Not true. I’ve been blogging elsewhere on project related stuff. I’m PI on four JISC-funded projects at the moment and it’s keeping me pretty focused on, well, project stuff. Here are some links to a few blog posts that Dear Readers of this blog might find of interest.
and regardless of my minor contributions, check out the project websites if you’re interests in open data, research data, access and identity, OAuth, data wrangling, cloud computing, WordPress/BuddyPress, and data visualisation. Props to Alex,Jamie, Nick, Harry, Dale and Dave, who toil daily on these projects for the Public Good.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s playing around on a Friday afternoon with a new script for GMail that provides statistics about your email habits. It doesn’t include spam, calendar invites or my chat history. I’m quite pleased that I send two-thirds less email than I receive, although it’s a shame that 80% of the emails I receive are not directly for me. Not that I want them to be, but it suggests I get CC’d into a lot of mail. I’m also pleased to see that about 80% of email I receive gets answered within one day. I hate it hanging around and usually have less than a handful of emails sitting in my Inbox at any one time. All my email, both work and personal, comes to this single account.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, while attending Dev8D, I surveyed developers working in or for universities. Here are the results. Click on the images below to view them full size. The data can be downloaded (minus email addresses and institutional affiliation).
What does the survey tell us? Well, it’s only 35 people out of about 250 that attended the conference. I also posted the link on Twitter, so it was open to abuse (it certainly wasn’t under controlled conditions!), but looking through the data, I don’t think it was spammed.
The last question shows that about two-thirds of respondents are keen to remain working in the sector and just under half of respondents are not looking for promotion. I expected that to be higher, given that a similar number have only worked in HE for 0-5 years, but maybe they’re entering at a level where promotion is less important to them. About a quarter of people said it was their first proper job. Other people are entering the sector from both public and private organisations in equal measure. A large majority of respondents are or have been in line management positions. Just under a third of developers can see themselves moving into management positions, away from day-to-day development, while a similar number aren’t sure.
In terms of how long they have been writing code, there was an even spread across the range of years and a corresponding response to whether people consider themselves novices, experienced or expert. Two thirds of respondents studied programming at university, but a larger number consider themselves self-taught. The two responses are not exclusive of course. The majority of people prefer web development and the choice of programming languages reflects that, too. There’s lots of use of source control applications, about half of people are using formal development frameworks and fewer people are using Continuous Integration.
Two thirds of people said that they work autonomously, are proud of the work they do, and get on with their colleagues, which is nice to hear 🙂 However, only a third of people think they are paid pretty well and just under a half said that they enjoy their responsibilities 🙁
About two thirds of respondents feel that their work forces them to learn new things all the time. While others only learn new things occasionally or on side projects. The majority of people learn from figuring it out on their own, but many people also learn from web articles, forums, books and colleagues. Training opportunities also seem to be available and, not surprisingly given we were at Dev8D, about half of respondents are encouraged to go to conferences and workshops. Of course, time and money keep people from attending such events, but more worryingly, there’s evidence that at some institutions, it’s ‘not the done thing’.
From my own work, I was interested to see that there’s little culture of involving students in the work of developing services for HEIs, with two-thirds of people saying they never or rarely employ students.
There’s more detail in the numbers, so do have a look for yourself. For me, this was a useful first attempt to get a sense of the motivation, opportunities, interests and challenges for hackers working in universities. I intend to follow it up with a more formal and controlled survey, as well as observation of teams across the country. If you’d like to invite me to observe and interview you and your team, please do let me know 🙂
Comments about the survey and the results are welcome below, too. Thanks.
How much does a student hacker need to develop a good idea to the point that it attracts further investment?
I’ve been thinking about this recently for a couple of reasons. I was reading the early Y Combinator site, via the Wayback Machine, about how they reckoned on $6,000 per person for their first Summer Founders Program. Each new startup could expect to receive less than $20K (the average is $17,000 / £10,000), with two or three friends being the ideal number of founders per company. The Summer Founders Program was aimed at undergraduate or graduating students.
I’ve also been looking at JISC’s Elevator funding programme, where people working in UK universities and colleges (with a *.ac.uk email address), are able to pitch an idea to receive up to £10,000 funding from JISC. That’s the same amount of money Y Combinator seeds their successful applicants with. I think the JISC Elevator is a great idea, but looking at the proposals that have been submitted so far, I’m surprised and disappointed that there aren’t any proposals where the money goes directly to students to develop ideas of their own. Maybe students haven’t been told? I’ll admit I’ve not publicised it at Lincoln, having been busy bidding forother JISC funds (where graduating 3rd year students are the main contributors to the projects) and awarding funds to projects of our own (where students receive most of the money). Still, I feel bad about not supporting JISC Elevator more. I have voted for one proposal.
I asked Alex, an undergrad and co-worker, how much a student who is hacking on an idea all day, every day, needs to live on in Lincoln, and he reckons about £600/month. That sounds harsh to me, so let’s assume they need £800/month and that there are three of them, because after all, if you can’t persuade a couple of friends that an idea is worth working on, then it probably isn’t a very good idea (or so says Y Combinator). On a related note, Google’s Summer of Code provides students with a $5000/£3000 stipend for the summer.
When I first heard about the JISC Elevator, my immediate thought was that the £10K maximum per project isn’t very much to attract FEC costed projects involving staff, but is perfect for offering to students as bursaries. A bursary, as I understand it, is supposed to cover the costs of living, rather than being seen as a wage, so they’re similar in purpose to the GSoC and Y Combinator funds. On our DIVERSE project, almost all of the money received went to paying the fees and bursaries of two MRes students. We are also prepared to contribute a larger percentage of the overall cost. Our recently funded beBOP project is an example of this, with a recent graduate being employed on grade 4, and the funding from JISC covering only 65% of the overall cost, compared to the maximum 80%.
I’ll admit, I don’t really understand how FEC works and where a lot of the money actually goes, but for the kinds of projects that the JISC Elevator is trying to attract, as well as JISC’s Rapid Innovation calls, I do wonder whether the GSoc or Y Combinator model of funding is a more cost-effective one. Pay students to hack over the summer, with a member of staff overseeing their work and call that the institutional contribution. £10K will pay for three students to hack over the summer, travel to a conference to talk about their work and pay for some servers on Rackspace for a few months. The tools to develop software in the early stages are cheap (a basic Linux stack on Rackspace is £7/month and there are enough open source tools available to explore ideas and develop prototypes, even if the ideal tool happens to be a proprietary one.
At Lincoln, we recognise that, given the opportunity and mentorship, undergraduate students have much to contribute. They’re not simply consumers of education. Like other universities, we’ve been running funding programmes each year that fund students to work on a research project with a member of staff over the summer. At Lincoln, it’s called UROS, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme. The Student as Producer UROS call was announced a few days ago. The LNCD group, which I co-ordinate awarded five projects £1000 each last week, which focus on the use of technology for education (more info on those projects soon). For the UROS and LNCD funded projects, almost all of the £1000 goes on undergraduate student bursaries. In my experience, undergraduate hackers can produce good work. Work that’s worth funding. Y Combinator thought so, too, and they’re now the most admired angel fund among young hackers. Each Y Combinator funded start-up is now guaranteed $150,000 as follow on funding by another investor. If you go Wayback to the first Summer Founders Program FAQ, you’ll see this:
Why are you doing this?
Partly because we feel guilty that we all got rich almost seven years ago, and still haven’t yet given seed money to new startups; partly because we think it is an interesting hack; and partly because we think it may actually make money.
We suspect that students, and particularly undergrads, are undervalued. Twenty years ago the idea of grad students starting companies would have seemed odd. Not after Yahoo and Google. And if grad students can do it, why not undergrads too?
I agree. Undergraduates can do it and I think institutions, together with JISC, should be thinking about our own Hatchery for Hackers.
I spend most of my time working with students and recent graduates. At first Alex, then Nick and Jamie, and in a week or two, Dale and Harry will join us. Dale and Alex are finishing up their final year in Computer Science and work as part-time Developers in ICT Services. Nick, Jamie and Harry graduated last year from studying Computer Science and work with me on JISC-funded projects. They’re all in their early to mid twenties. I learn a lot from them. Sometimes they make me feel old. I’m only 38.
In a year or so, they’ll probably move on to other things. Alex and Nick already have their own company and a business plan. Jamie wants to do a PhD. If I can secure us interesting and useful work, maybe Dale and Harry will stay on for a while longer, I don’t know. I hope they will stay but it needs to be for a good reason otherwise I would encourage them to look for new challenges.
These days I wonder how we (‘the university’) can support young hackers like the bunch I work with. Career progression for developers working in universities is not great. Paul Walk recognised this as does the JISC-funded DevCSI project, run by Mahendra Mahey. Without their work, which highlights the importance of local developers, I think the HE sector would be a pretty barren place for hackers to commune. No Dev8D, no DevXS, fewer hack days and developer workshops. Along with several other people, I was invited to be on the Steering Group for DevCSI today, which I am very pleased about, and I look forward to working with the project more closely in the future.
There are a few things I’d like to focus on with DevCSI, based on my experience working with young hackers: the first is about how hackers learn. As I see it, this requires research into the history of hacking in universities, the role of undergraduate and graduate students in funded research, from ARPANET to Total ReCal, hacking as a cognitive craft that has its own learning communities and learning environments, that creates tools which help improve the effectiveness of learning and how those tools eventually shape the tools the rest of us use to learn.
The second thing I’d like to focus on, is how universities can learn from what we see happening in hacker culture: new reputational models, fablabs and hackerspaces, peer-production, and new methods of funding. On this last point, I’d like to develop an academic programme that attracted hackers and graduated start-ups. I think the Y Combinator model is a good example of this already happening, where students and recent graduates are receiving a little funding and lots of support, while asking for just a very small cut of the company.
Finally, I’d like to think about how we can break down the distinction between developers working in professional services and developers working on research projects and remind ourselves that we all work in universities: autonomous institutions for research, teaching and learning, and that when companies want to instill a culture of innovation, they often emulate the research culture of universities. I’d like to work towards developers in HE knowing there was the opportunity to be paid the same as professors when they clearly add similar value to the institution, which I think is easily possible. I see no reason why great hackers – experienced software craftsmen and women – working in universities shouldn’t be paid £100K or more, just as professors and other senior staff can be. Of course, working in a university, they would teach other hackers, run software development projects, contribute to the strategic direction of the university and produce superb software for the institution, too. Would they be on an academic or a non-academic contract? I don’t know. At that level, I don’t think it matters, but at the junior and middle periods of their careers it remains a divisive distinction that affects people’s aspirations.
Being great hackers, they would attract students that aspire to be great hackers, too. Just as I decided which graduate school to study at based on the reputation of a single professor working there, so young hackers would want to work with and learn from great hackers in universities, even more so if their programme of study included a Y Combinator style opportunity for angel investment.
I’d like to see an academic programme led by experienced software craftsmen with reputations to match, where students from different disciplines spend their degree in a university space that resembles a hackerspace or dojo, working together on ideas of their own under the guidance of more experienced staff, leading to potential angel investment at any point in their degree. Those that don’t get funded, leave with a degree, a valuable experience and a network of alumni contacts. Those that do get funded are given the support they need to develop their work into a real product or service. Sometimes, it might be one that the university would use itself, but not always. Over time, successful alumni would help attract more students to the programme, developing a culture of hackers and successful startups attached to the degree programme.
What excites me about this is that it’s a mixture of what universities always say they are about: research, teaching, learning and enterprise, but it recognises that those processes are changing and that hackers are already developing a model that is replacing these functions of the university: the opportunities for learning, collaboration, reputation building/accreditation and access to cheap hardware and software for prototyping ideas, can and are taking place outside universities, and so they should. However, I think that university culture is still a place where the hacker ethic (respect for good ideas, meritocracy, autonomy, curiosity, fixing things, against technological determinism, peer review, perpetual learning, etc.) remains relevant and respected. A university is a place where people come to learn from each other and we should be creating these new spaces and programmes that recognise the value of developers in universities.
Like any programme of study, work and investment, it needs careful thinking about how to set it up right, but from where I stand, it feels like a gaping hole in higher education that needs to be filled. Do you know of any examples that are already running? A ‘MIT Media Lab lite’ could be close to what I have in mind, but I have no experience of how it’s run and whether it breaks down the distinction between academic and non-academic staff to the extent I have in mind.
Since 2010 a project called Student as Producer has been adopted as the de facto teaching and learning strategy for the University of Lincoln. This is an attempt to engage undergraduate students in research, and to make research part of the teaching process. It is also a vehicle for demonstrating the value of openness – an idea bolstered by the establishment of numerous other open access initiatives at the university.